Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

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Sir Walter Scott was one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. His popularity and influence were not limited to Scotland or to the British Isles—he was admired and widely read throughout Europe and the United States. His novels are sweeping historical romances, but underneath the swordplay and the grandeur lies a firm moral underpinning.

Scott was born in Edinburgh, but, when he was less than two years of age, a childhood illness forced the family to send him to live with his grandparents at their home, Sandy Knowe, thirty miles southeast of the city. He remained there until he was seven or eight years of age. This was border country, a region filled with visual historic landmarks of the Scots’ long and bloody conflicts with the English. Scott himself was descended from ancient chieftains as well as from the first laird of Raeburn. To keep the young Scott entertained, both of his grandparents recounted the oral history of the region and of his own family. He grew up immersed in the romance and tragedy of the Jacobite rebellion and the endless skirmishes in which the Scots fought to keep themselves free from British dominion.

Scott retained his childhood fascination with both the history and the landscape of Scotland, and these constitute the settings of almost all of his novels. Indeed, one of Scott’s crowning achievements as a novelist is his ability to make history and landscapes breathe with life. Almost all of Scotland’s history is presented in one or another of his novels. The Fair Maid of Perth, which portrays medieval Scotland, provides an excellent example of this. In its preface, Scott informs the reader of his fascination with the story of the battle between members of two prominent Highland clans that took place in Perth in 1396, in front of the court of King Robert III. Using this incident as a starting point, Scott gives a clear and accurate picture of the period and those who lived then. His portrayal of the weak and ineffectual King Robert, who is dominated by his treacherous brother, the duke of Albany, puts a human face on history. Robert’s relationship with his son, Rothsay, is recounted in all of its tragedy. History itself proves melodramatic. Two other historical figures play key roles in the story. Conachar is based on a Highlands chief who fled the conflict, and Henry Gow on a townsman named Henry Wynd, who took part in the battle. All of the novel’s historic characters are developed clearly and effectively.

Scott provides many rich characterizations, in contrast to a formulaic romance novel. All three of the suitors for Catharine’s hand are unique. Conachar’s character is extremely complex. In the city, where he works as an apprentice to Simon Glover, he appears arrogant, feisty, often unlikable. In the Highlands, however, a new side of Conachar is introduced. He has inherited his father’s leadership of Clan Quhele. Behind his flamboyant appearance, however, he has been forced to face the fact that he is a coward. In dealing with this, he becomes a far more compelling figure than a stock warrior. He may not be a totally sympathetic figure, but he is extremely human.

The novel’s hero, Henry Gow, also varies from type. His physical appearance is not that of the handsome hero. His moral character, too, falls short of tradition. He has a hot temper and often indulges in battle for the sheer sake of fighting and excitement. He is not completely virtuous; only the love of Catharine restrains him from his sometimes destructive behavior.

Scott also creates a vivid picture of the growing merchant and artisan class that was beginning to have influence in Scotland. In his novel the city of Perth teems with bourgeois life. Little more than a century before, Scotland was ruled under a feudal system. In this tale, Scott shows how members of the growing merchant class are beginning to exert their power to challenge the nobility.

Not just history but also the landscape of Scotland unfolds before the reader in The Fair Maid of Perth. Chapter 1 lovingly describes Perth, noting its importance as far back as the days of the Roman occupation of the land. The chapter even opens with a quote comparing the Tiber with the Tay, the river that will figure so prominently at the novel’s end.

The theme of The Fair Maid of Perth involves contrasts. The main conflict lies between violence and pacifism. From the beginning of the novel, Catharine decries the violence and bloodshed in the world around her. While she admires Henry, she is also repelled by his attraction to battle. Henry, the armorer, by trade and by inclination finds fighting both noble and necessary. By the novel’s end, however, both Catharine and Henry come to accommodate each other. Catharine has realized that it is not always possible to avoid fighting in a violent world, and Henry has had his fill of bloodshed. When the Black Douglas invites Henry to join his army and become a knight, the young man refuses, noting, “I have shed blood enough already.”

Other conflicts also play key roles in the novel. The townspeople are determined to establish their rights and no longer be victimized by the arrogant actions of the nobility. The burghers meet and voice their claims successfully. The traditional enmities appear: between Highlands and Lowlands, between Scotland and England. Scott develops his theme using symbolism, a characteristic that does not occur in many of his novels. Simon is a glover, and from the novel’s opening, emphasis is placed on the importance of the hand and the head. The Fair Maid of Perth, one of the darkest and most violent of Scott’s novels, is also one of the best of his later works.